In the kitchen with…
Chef Bruce Corson of the Alpine Garden Grille
Story by Catherine Bodry • Photos by R&R Productions
Combine a taste for adventure with a degree in chemistry, add a career in commercial fishing, and you don't always come up with an executive chef. But that's exactly the credentials that Wasilla's Alpine Garden Grille's owner and executive chef Bruce Corson has. Although his background is varied, his passion for good food and his positive attitude are two constants from his history that led him to open the Grille in June 2007.
Corson, 47, was an independent youth raised in Oregon, and if he didn't like what his mother cooked, he simply made something else. He often cooked for his siblings, learning to make dishes such as French toast and waffles. As Corson advanced and refined his cooking skills, they were often requested on hunting trips and out fishing on Bristol Bay.
"Friends always suggested that I be a chef," he recalls, "because I just enjoy cooking good food."
In his own home, Corson enjoys experimenting and improvising.
"I like to cook with whatever is in my refrigerator," he says. He's partial to cooking without a recipe, but admits that running a restaurant has deepened his appreciation for the freedom of his personal kitchen. "There's a certain romanticism about preparing food at home. It's relaxed and you're not under any pressure."
In the commercial kitchen, however, things are a bit different. Corson acknowledges that there is a lot of pressure in fine dining. Unlike at home, everything has to be prepped ahead of time, and there's no relaxed experimentation.
"I have a strong opinion on how I want things done (at the Grille). For one thing, I'm particular about presentation. Dishes need to look good when they go out to the table," Corson says. He also relies on his intuition: "I can take one look at a steak and tell how it's cooked," he says. "One taste of something and I know how it's been seasoned."
He also cites a positive, "can-do" attitude as his best kitchen tool – along with sharp knives, of course.
But Corson is reluctant to accept full credit for his success in his restaurant.
"I surround myself with good chefs," he says when asked about The Grille's success. The menu is a collaboration of his chefs' recipes and ideas, including his own travels outside Alaska. Surprisingly, given his love for wild game and Alaskan seafood, Corson's menu at the Grille is influenced by his Pacific Northwest roots more than Alaska.
"I use a lot of hazelnuts in my dishes," Corson notes, pointing to a popular dish at his restaurant: Hazelnut Chicken Roulade with Calvados cream sauce (see recipe on facing page).
For the at-home chef who might not be as adventurous or intuitive as Corson, he advises using family recipes as a base.
"Look to your roots, to what's ingrained," he suggests. "Then rely on other influences to help you experiment."
Despite his admitted regimen at work, it's obvious that Corson's adventurous spirit and his love of good food are key ingredients in the Alpine Garden Grille's success.
"Our motif is 'Fine Dining with a Casual Elegance,'" he says. "But to our local customers, it's just 'Good Food in the Valley.'"